The Mount – Novella excerpt

The large Victorian house was devoid of noise and life; the empty rooms give off an air of forlornness. Twelve vast rooms, a garden overgrown; the kitchen houses a solitary open box of donated crockery covered with a thin layer of dust.  Corridors are occupied with curtains, distempers, paint and clothes; all gifts from women who are frightened, afraid of the dark forces that are suppressing democracy as the sons of dictators in their flying machines are wreaking havoc with gas bombs, starting fire storms imagined only in Dante’s depths of inferno, maculated disease crosses borders, unseen and unheard; Rojo’s are fleeing. Mrs Webb stands staring from the road, imagining, naming the house, “the Mount”; a refuge for those who escaped while death stalked. In the next three weeks this vacant house would be transformed into hub of activity and hope.

Cowardly in conception and diabolical in its execution, this slaughter of civilians who had no means of defending themselves; were blown to pieces  or cremated alive as they sought refuge in dug-outs … will ever remain a blot on Western Civilization’  hollers a newspaper cutting (amongst many newspaper cuttings) on an oak table placed in the centre of an open kitchen, a textual visualisation, an imagery of the horrors of modern warfare created through a carefully written melody of how death poured from the skies. It is being read clandestinely by a young man in the presence of an elderly lady, the article was written seventy-eight years ago in April 1937.

“Okay, are you ready?” asks the interviewer; a slim, bearded young man who sits across the kitchen table, armed with a dictaphone, a pencil and a blank page in notebook.

“Yes my dear” replies Mrs Webb. Mrs Webb a stout lady in her early nineties, her white hair carefully curled.

“Why … what inspired you to support them, the children?”  asked the young man;  a standard half open-ended question when conducting an oral history interview. The interview was for a project titled ‘The Basque children of 1937’.

“How does one imagine war? There were no modern news channels, no Hollywood movies – you cannot know what it was like to live in a time of such tension, such rapid change, an age of rumour and speculation. How do you imagine a war that has not yet been fought, a war with faceless machines armed with weapons of unknown horror whereby one cannot imagine how civilisation might survive. How does one imagine a war of the future, now being waged on our continent, in our present? ” She talks quietly and quickly; her words are formed with emotion (memories) crafted, shaped, finessed over time and biased by experience.

“When did you decide to take action? was there a single event – a tipping point?” The interviewer searching for a question to open the floodgates, so that he may listen, allow the interviewee to become a storyteller; hoping for a subjective account of complex event, a deep (authentic) narrative.

Mrs Webb leans forward, places her hands on her thighs, her eyes brighten and the gaze deepens. The atmosphere changes and there is the feeling of a shift in time; the sun is setting through the window. “It is a little dark” comments  Mrs Webb and she lights a single candle and the kitchen is transformed as newly formed shadows dance across the table. The newspaper cutting is gestured to and the young man nervously slides it close enough to read but before he can begin to analyse the script Mrs Webb starts to speak.

“Have you heard of Aristotle?” The question from Mrs Webb was rhetorical. “Or Einstein or Kant or even Coleridge?” The man looked nervous hoping the rhetorical exchange remained just so. “Aristotle reasoned that the  imagination plays a role in the dynamics of such things as perception, emotion, motivation, dreams, memory, thinking, behaviour, and the subjective nature of experience.” The young man stared, motionless, a subtle cue for Mrs Webb to continue. “He believed there are two types of imagination The Sensitive and Deliberative Imagination. The sensitive imagination is applicable to all animals and the Deliberative is unique to the Human Being as it involves a degree of rationalisation. This accompaniment of imagery with deliberative thought, logic, or reason is referred to as the deliberative imagination” – a pause, almost theatrical yet timid, it is the first performance of this script, a script which had been shaped over the last seventy-five years – ” Coleridge’s ideas of the secondary imagination are closely linked to this notion, as he purposes that secondary imagination is more active and conscious in its working. The secondary imagination works upon what is perceived by the primary imagination by an effort of the will and the intellect, and then selects and orders the raw material and re-shapes it. The imagination is shaped by the senses and gaps in reality, the gaps are filled by the imagery of others, from a range of mediums, always influenced by others.” A shorter pause.”The question is rather, what imagery had caused me to act, what could be so terrible that I would do what I did? You should read that; I will put the kettle on.”

Mrs Webb moved slowly and silently from the table leaving the young man with the article simply  titled ‘The Tragedy of Guernica’; it was an unrehearsed part of the imagined recital. The young man although startled by the early exchange was composed enough to announce to the recording device that he had been handed the item and gave it a citation before pausing the machine. He started to read the piece, he was aware that such an article had been written, but he had not taken the time to search the archive and locate it for himself, he was now regretting that he hadn’t. He read each word slowly (some twice) as he sensed this was an important part of tonight’s show.

The rhythm of this bombing of an open town was, therefore, a logical one: first, hand grenades and heavy bombs to stampede the population, then machine-gunning to drive them below, next heavy and incendiary bombs to wreck the houses and burn them on top of their victims …. The enemy has advanced in. many parts elsewhere to be driven out of them afterwards. I do not hesitate to affirm that here the same thing will happen. May to-day’s outrage be one spur more to do it with all speed.’

“The article was printed in the Times. Steer was a man with a heavy heart you know, had just lost his wife and unborn child shortly before he wrote this, this was his first assignment after that personal tragedy; you know he also wrote about the terrible gassing in Abyssinia. I read this article after daddy had thrown the paper down on the table in our small kitchen – normally I would not have been allowed to read the paper ; he had been cursing at the injustice – I had never heard him curse before or since. My father was a seaman in the Great War, he had seen enough sadness, but he had also spent time with the Basque people. He threw the paper and left the room, I felt an overwhelming desire to read what he read, to understand what had caused such emotion in an unemotional man.”

Luckily the young man had been quick to react and turned on the Dictaphone as Mrs Webb took her seat at the table. He  had read the article and at once started to understand why people might be roused by the calling of arms that Steer had engineered in an article that would stir the hearts of many but would divide a nation.

“After I had read the article I was still, numb with a sadness as the certainty of such atrocities would change the world as we know it.

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Plymouth’s blackout history

Lighting restrictions imposed by the state in the shadow of the Zeppelin, first introduced in 1914, empowered the naval or military authority to extinguish all lights of any defended harbour during specified hours; this included Plymouth with the Royal Dockyard of Devonport and busy shipping port of Millbay docks. The strategic intention of the first blackout was twofold.

  1. A) to conceal particular premises or localities which might otherwise be exposed to enemy attack from sea or from air,
  2. B) to disguise them so that they might not afford navigational to the enemy

Within a month the first general order from the Home Secretary allowed for the dimming or extinction of lights in a specified area. The public in London were not tolerant of the social control of the first major civil administrative action of air raid defence, therefore the restrictions imposed were ineffective; a response that provided other areas with an insight into the potential problems of the implementation of the policy. There was also confusion across the rest of the country as the Home Office, War Office, Admiralty and local Naval and military authorities were all concerned with lighting restrictions. After much deliberation, uniformity arrived as the Home Office assumed responsibility for all lighting restrictions and the Naval and Military authorities were evoked, shifting the responsibility from military to civil authorities. Soon the lighting restrictions were extended to cover the whole of England, but did not include the six most westerly counties, including Plymouth,[2]  not because of the lack of strategic importance but the dim of their remoteness. However, the newly formed Plymouth Corporation quickly became nervous on hearing news of the Zeppelin attacks on the industrial sites of the Midlands and then of the attacks on eastern ports in the Tyne, Humber, East Anglia and Portsmouth (in particular) and asked to be included in the restriction schemes. The Plymouth ‘dim-out’  would see that street lights were dimmed to a grisly blue glow and windows which faced the sea were shielded; both caused a little inconvenience. [4]

[1] Terrence O’Brien, Civil Defence, HMSO 1950, pp.10-12

[2] RAJ Walling, The Story of Plymouth, 1950 London Westaway books. p.252

Rumour and the Plymouth Blitz

‘perhaps that was why we felt ourselves, in this deserted city, to be entering into ever more frequent and closer contact with the weird and inexplicable. The phantoms had got the upper-hand, and one ended by almost accepting their domination as the natural state of life’ (Savignon, 1965: p136)

The disturbed population is trying gauge the importance of the event as one phase of its effort after meaning. Metaphorically they were saying ‘things just couldn’t be more horrible’. Having lost home and perhaps loved ones, the feelings and anxiety of desolation are underlined by adding ravages and wild beasts or ghouls … through these embellishments the sense of total disaster is metaphorically conveyed.[1]

[1]AN ANALYSIS OF RUMOR GORDON W. ALLPORT and LEO POSTMAN Public Opin Q (1946) 10 (4): 501-517.